ALTHOUGH THE full text has not yet been released, the news from Cuba about a new constitution is tantalizing. The document could lead to laws that permit same-sex marriage and could permit owning private property. If true, this would mark a reversal from decades of hostility to homosexuality and capitalism. But don’t hold your breath for major change. The constitution will not allow the most basic right of all — for Cubans to choose their own leaders or determine the shape of their own government.
In Raúl Castro’s 10 years as president, which ended this year, there were modest openings for private entrepreneurs who were eager to build small businesses but found themselves hampered by sudden restrictions from the state, which began to hold up licenses last year. This kind of gradual, paternalistic, stop-start thinking is characteristic of the regime, even under the handpicked new president, Miguel Díaz-Canel . The constitutional rewrite, carried out under Mr. Castro’s supervision, does not auger a radical break from it.
In the 1960s, Fidel Castro created penal colonies that incarcerated homosexuals, as well as others deemed “deviants” by the regime. Now, according to Reuters, the constitution will define marriage as a union between two people, not as between a man and a woman. More legislation would be required to legalize same-sex marriage, but the change would begin to catch up with evolving social values around the world. Likewise, the new constitution reportedly will tip the hat to the market and private property — but also strongly endorse the principles of a socialist system with state-owned companies in a dominant position. This does not seem likely to truly free Cuba’s entrepreneurs, with all their vigor and aspirations, from the heavy hand of Cuba’s long-outdated socialist dictates.
Cuba’s 1940 constitution was a progressive document. It was followed by a dozen years of elected but corrupt government, then abrogated by Fulgencio Batista’s coup of 1952. Castro took power in 1959 but only got around to a new constitution in 1976 as part of an effort to consolidate his Soviet-backed, Marxist one-party state. The 1976 document included a provision that allowed 10,000 eligible voters to propose laws to parliament. When Oswaldo Payá and other dissidents put this to the test in May 2002 with the Varela Project citizens initiative, submitting 11,020 signatures to parliament demanding a referendum on democracy, a free press, free markets and freedom for political prisoners, their request was coldly ignored, and instead Castro sponsored a referendum to enshrine socialism as irrevocable in Cuba’s political, social and economic life.
This leads to what is really deficient about the current exercise — it does not envision a Cuba where people are free to choose their own leaders, nor open the Communist Party to serious competition. If anything, the regime wants to don a nice new suit, but its basic authoritarian and repressive methods have not changed.